Hammerwatch Review: Gauntlet Redux, Anyone?
For some odd reason a line from the comedy classic “Airplane” was rambling through my brain as I was playing Crackshell’s Hammerwatch. The line is Capt. Clarence Over’s as he is regaling a young visitor to his cockpit: “Joey, do you like movies about gladiators,” the solemn airline pilot pointedly asks the lad. When I was saying it to myself as I battled with the nasty denizens of Castle Hammerwatch, I changed it a bit just to amuse myself. What I kept saying was, “Joey, do you like video games like Gauntlet?”
The reason it’s funny, at least to me, is because Hammerwatch is, essentially, the 1985 Atari coin-op classic on mega steroids. Forget the crap that A-Rod and Ryan Braun have been pumping into their bodies for the last several years, I want whatever Hammerwatch has been taking.
Hammerwatch: PC [reviewed], Mac and Linux
Release Date: Aug. 13th, 2013
Steam Store: Hammerwatch
Hammerwatch is a fun, challenging retro dungeon crawler, but it has a few chinks in its armor that keep it from being amazing. The challenge it dishes out is daunting and should be considered before you even set foot in the Castle. You are going to die. A lot. Get that through your head now. Several of the later levels can be nigh impossible to beat, much like the game this sets out to emulate: Gauntlet. But Gauntlet was designed in that punishingly hard fashion to pilfer a few more quarters from the player’s pocket. With Hammerwatch, many of today’s players may just throw down the controller in exasperation, uninstall the game from their hard drive and move on to games that are a bit more user friendly.
Also like Gauntlet, it doesn’t have much of a narrative and doesn’t need it. You enter the eponymous castle as one of the four character classes: Paladin, Warlock, Ranger and Wizard. A terse line or two of text appears above your chosen avatar, informing you that the bridge has gone out behind you and that’s it; it’s time to slay beasties and collect treasure. But, what Hammerwatch lacks in storytelling it more than makes up for with a heaping helping of pure, twitchy arcade action. It’s not all seek and destroy though, as there are also puzzles to solve, secrets to uncover and tactics to consider, especially when tackling the castle alone.
Regarding character classes and play mechanics, there’s really nothing new or surprising here. The Paladin has armor, a sword and a dash maneuver; the Warlock has a poison dagger and shoots wicked lighting blasts, which I took to calling “the BRRIIZAP! Balls” because of the neat sound effect they make when they strike a target; the Ranger has a long-range bow and drops bombs and the Wizard launches fireballs and can spew some sort of noxious flame cloud. Surprisingly, I found that none of the characters plays all that differently, except for the Paladin who doesn’t have any ranged attacks, but his heavy armor can deflect projectiles. The character’s weapons and/or abilities are triggered individual buttons on the gamepad and can be re-mapped to the player’s liking. The controls are smooth and responsive when using the controller, as they should be for this type of game. Using the WASD keyboard controls is a different story altogether, and I wouldn’t recommend using them unless you are very, very good with that style of control.
Castle Hammerwatch is filled to the brim with terrible creatures and devices that want to see you bleed. They start off weak and slow but become quite formidable as you delve deeper into the castle. In another nod to Gauntlet, many times these creatures have “spawn points” that you’ll have to destroy to keep bad guys from reappearing. The spawn points in Gauntlet were just a pile of bones, if memory serves, but the spawn points in Hammerwatch are varied and artistically interesting. My personal favorite of these breeding areas spawns skeletons (and what good fantasy game doesn’t have skeleton enemies, I ask you?), which makes it seem like they’re spawning out of a pit that leads straight down to the depths of Hell. It’s a nice little touch that stands out and Hammerwatch is filled with similar touches.